Skip to main content

The most effective politicians have a gift for self-dramatization. They become leading actors in their own play. Gag at the comparison if you like, but Rob Ford is like Pierre Trudeau or Margaret Thatcher that way. Because of him, people who used to yawn at city politics now follow it with passionate interest. A booming city with serious growing pains needs that kind of attention. Rob Ford drew it like a magnet. In that sense, if no other, he will be missed.

From slapstick farce to drug scandal to police show to medical drama, there has never been anything quite like the Rob Ford story.

He called the cops on a comedian who showed up on his driveway in a plastic breastplate. He appeared in not one but two crack videos. He cussed out the chief of police in Jamaican patois. He bowled over a female city councillor in the city hall chamber. He coined the most famous excuse in the world: "drunken stupor." He danced like nobody was watching on the floor of city council. And, despite it all, he refused to step down as mayor, vowing he would run and win again.

If you pitched that script poolside at a Hollywood hotel, the producers would have laughed you out of the cabana. Now comes this: a last-minute withdrawal from the most heated, most watched mayoral contest in Toronto's history.

Under the shadow of a medical crisis, Rob Ford is out of the race and running for his old job as city councillor. To add yet another twist, Doug Ford is in, taking his younger brother's place to avoid the unthinkable calamity of a Toronto led by someone other than a Ford.

Even former mayor Mel Lastman, who had some nutty moments of his own, called the goings-on down at City Hall the "biggest circus" Toronto has ever seen.

The Ford story has always oscillated between funny and sad, crazy and dark. Friday's events were no different. With a tumour in his belly and days to go before getting a diagnosis, the mayor faced a decision: To stay or go.

Whatever you may think of Mr. Ford and his train wreck of a mayoralty, you have to feel for him as he made that call from his hospital room with his health in the balance and a 2 p.m. elections-office deadline hanging over him.

As he put it in the statement announcing his decision, "I love being your mayor." Anyone who has seen him in action, running in a sweat from house to house to ask voters to support him for re-election, can't doubt his drive.

City politics has been his life for 14 years. His whole identity is wrapped up in his role as self-appointed champion of the taxpayer and "the best mayor that this city ever had." Now he faces a personal crisis that puts even his struggle with addiction in the shade. As he said in a statement on Friday afternoon, "I could be facing a battle of my lifetime."

It is a sad end to a captivating political journey. Mr. Ford is a proud, even stubborn man who thinks of himself as a dauntless scrapper. It must break his heart to throw in the towel. But, of course, it was the right thing – the only thing – to do. He will need all his formidable energy and determination for the medical ordeal he most probably faces.

His decision to put in his papers to run for city council makes sense for him. He is certain to win his old Etobicoke seat again. He is much better suited to the role of gadfly than of leader. He played it for 10 years as a cranky suburban councillor before running for mayor in 2010. If, fates willing, he recovers, he can do it again, ranting from the sidelines at that old gravy train that (he is bound to say) will start chugging without him around.

The family decision to pull a switcheroo and run Doug Ford for mayor in his stead is more questionable. Doug has none of Rob's aw-shucks, everyman appeal.

Though he is more gregarious than his surprisingly shy younger brother, he often comes across as a brash, glad-handing used-car salesman with an angry side. He may win over the hard-core Ford Nation types, but is unlikely to get much traction with the voters of the moderate right and the middle ground who put Rob Ford over the top in 2010. The last thing Toronto needs is a Ford dynasty.

Barring a political miracle then, this season of Game of Fords is drawing to an end. If, as seems likely, Doug loses for mayor, their strange hold on the city will be over, leaving Toronto politics to return to its usual obscurity.

To feel nostalgia for the fading Rob Ford era would be perverse. He has been a disastrous mayor – an inept manager, a divisive politician, an embarrassment to his city.

But give him this: As mayor, he was fascinating to watch. In his odd, often infuriating way, he made people care about the fate of the city. In that sense, if no other, he will be missed.